Throughout Donald Trump’s run at the White House, GOP leaders proclaimed time and again that Trump was not a conservative. They called him many things — a populist, a nationalist, a member of the alt-right, but almost never a conservative. Many mainstream Republicans refused to accept that Trump was one of their own.
Now that Trump sits in the oval office, however, these naysayers are confronted with a contradiction. Perhaps Trump still isn’t a conservative — but as President he is the de facto leader of the Republican party. As such, he plays a major role in defining Republican values, and defining what it means to be a conservative.
In his campaign, Trump championed his own unique version of the Republican platform. His slogan “America First,” as well as his rhetoric about building a wall and his newly approved travel ban, suggest populist/nationalist leanings.
Labeling Trump as a populist or nationalist makes him seem radical, however, and Trump has not always been so far to the right. In fact, many of Trump’s comments through the years identify more with moderate, or even liberal, ideology. He used to advocate for higher taxes on the wealthy, taking in Syrian refugees, and even single-payer healthcare. What’s more, despite his wall-building rhetoric, Trump attacked Mitt Romney in 2012 for being too harsh on illegal immigration.
These are certainly not positions that come to mind as values of the conservative base. Traditional conservatives are for lower tax rates, reforming government run welfare programs, strict adherence to the Constitution, and conservative social policies. Conservative, by its very definition, is inconsistent with Trump’s persona — he is far from a conventional President.
Nevertheless, since becoming President, Trump has displayed some conservative instincts. Trump appointed a conservative to the Supreme Court, repealed many of Obama’s environmental regulations, has spoken out for tax reduction and simplification, and vowed to confront the North Korean threat. He is still not a conventional conservative President, but traditional conservatives like myself certainly cannot complain about many of his actions in office so far.
Trump is less philosophically grounded than many politicians. He openly speaks his mind and takes action without regard for which ideology his positions fall into. This creates confusion in the political arena, because Americans are used to a rigid two-party system in which left and right are easily distinguishable.
Trump falls into no such category, and he is not the first fracture in the age-old molds. The emergence of the Tea Party, the ringings of socialism among some Democrats, and other alternative movements have made it more difficult to define what is actually Republican and what is actually Democrat.
So, is Trump a conservative? It doesn’t seem to matter, as long as he advances conservative principles. For many, it’s enough that Trump says that he is a Republican and a conservative for them to believe it. In fact, a recent study found that grass-roots level Republicans (those who didn’t follow politics closely) overwhelmingly view politicians who support Trump as being more conservative, whether or not they actually are.
In this way, Trump and his followers could be redefining what it means to be a conservative. Usually, we can look to the cookie cutter conservative values to determine who’s a conservative and who’s not—but if it’s the moderate Republicans who are embracing these values, and the unconventional Trump supporters who are actually calling themselves conservative, the definition itself is blurred.
The ideological confusion surrounding Trump has had an effect on the message of Republican politicians around the country. In the Alabama special election, for example, senatorial candidates are determined to define themselves as “conservatives” to attract the state’s strong red base. They differ, however, on exactly what this means, especially in relation to support for the President.
Establishment candidate Luther Strange is the embodiment of conventional conservative; he has the support of Mitch McConnell and the Republican elite. But conventional Strange has hitched his wagon to unconventional Trump. Strange tweeted that he would “work with President Donald Trump to drain the swamp and help make America great again.”
Strange and Trump are certainly not the same type of conservative — so does Strange supporting Trump mean that Trump is a true conservative? Or does it mean that Strange is more of a populist like Trump?
Congressman Mo Brooks is another interesting case. Brooks was rated as 94 percent conservative by the Heritage Foundation (where I used to work), and has been known as a conservative firebrand. However, though mostly supportive, Brooks has spoken out against some of trumps policies, and is opposed to Mitch McConnell’s leadership in the Senate.
The third candidate in this three-way race is Judge Roy Moore. Moore is known as an outspoken defender of conservative social values. Like Brooks, he has positioned himself against the establishment GOP and has been a vocal critic of McConnell as well. With polls tightening, it is anyone’s guess as to who the will come out on top.
As the 2018 midterm election develops, there will likely be more examples of the struggle to define “conservative” among Republican candidates. GOP leaders will have to find a way to clearly define their platform in a way true to their traditional conservative brand, while supporting an atypical conservative administration.
Christopher Reid is general practice attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He has worked for Republican leadership in the United States House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., and was a health policy advisor to the governor of Alabama. He currently co-hosts a conservative radio show for Yellowhammer News radio, which is heard throughout the state of Alabama.
Reid is a guest contributor for The Hill, which is where this article was originally posted.